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Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2001/ 22 Elul 5761

Suzanne Fields

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They don't make 'em like Aunt Minnie anymore -- AUNT Minnie is dead, at 91. She had an old-fashioned name and lived an old-fashioned life. It already reads like ancient history.

Aunt Minnie was the youngest daughter in a family of eight children. She met her sweetheart at 14, married him at 16 and bore him two children before she was 20. She was a grandmother at 40. Three adult grandchildren and several great grandchildren stood at her graveside to evoke her spirit hovering over the family.

Aunt Minnie knitted beautiful afghans for wedding presents. She occasionally knitted an afghan for a baby at the same time, but never told the couple. "I didn't want to apply pressure.'' She put it away until a baby was born. She taught the girls in the extended family how to make "mandel bread'' and prepare chopped liver. The boys in the family said her recipes were "touched by the hands of an angel.''

She was the family historian who documented the steps of her mother and father from Minsk. Her father, a carpenter, came to the New World first to earn enough money to bring over everybody else. When he had sent enough, her mother put the kids in a horse-drawn wagon, camouflaged them with old clothes and food and used some of the precious money to bribe the czar's guards to let them cross the border into Germany. She booked steerage in Bremen and they arrived on these shores tired and hungry, like many Russian Jews before her.

So many of the searing issues of our day -- the independence of women, family values, how to care for the young and the old, the poor and the needy among us -- were cheerfully confronted by Aunt Minnie without argument. She didn't know anything was up for debate.

Matrimony was holy and for keeps. The rabbi spoke of her marriage of more than six decades with the heartbreaking poetry of the Song of Solomon: "I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me.''

But Aunt Minnie, who never lost her wry sense of humor, would have entered caveats. When I congratulated her on her 50th wedding anniversary, she replied: "Seems like a hundred.'' She held to the old wives' secret of a long marriage: "I married for life, not for lunch.''

Tolstoy was wrong with his famous observation that all happy families are alike and unhappy families are different in their own way. Most families are both happy and unhappy, and often at the same time.

No matter how we may applaud "alternative lifestyles,'' most of us experience pleasure and pain to the counterpoint of the heartbeat of family life. To think that we can separate the good from the bad and the joy from the junk, like the wheat from the chaff, is the stuff of metaphor, not reality. The soothing comforts of childhood come in a dish of vanilla ice cream, but only with the peas on another plate. If we're lucky we may even get an occasional scoop of chunky chocolate fudge, but not until we finish the fish.

The eulogies at Aunt Minnie's grave called up these thoughts, echoed in the new issue of American Experiment Quarterly, devoted to "Marriage and Children: A Symposium on Making Marriage More Child Centered.''

Had Aunt Minnie read it, she would have asked: "So what's not child-centered about marriage?''

That's exactly the question Mitchell Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank in Minneapolis, asked of his guest editors. They don't discuss marriage in cliched terms of "what's best for the children'' so much as to show how the links between family, children and society are gratifying in the broadest sense -- personally and philosophically. Children always stand in the foreground of marriage, in the moral framework absent in post-modern intellectual discussions of family.

Given America's penchant for individualism (and narcissism), writes David Blankenhorn, a scholar with the Institute for American Values, the utilitarian defenses for marriage -- "you and your kids will live longer, better, smarter, healthier, happier lives'' -- are helpful, but hardly sufficient to change social behavior.

Instead, he urges us to think about marriage "as an act of moral aspiration and high adventure, compared to which the posturings of today's dime-a-dozen libertines and sexual cynics come across as flat, stale, and unimaginative.'' As young men and women reach for freedom, they need to consider not only what they are "free from,'' but also what they are "free for.''

There's more where that came from, but that's a start. It's only what Aunt Minnie always knew.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS